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Can small rivers tie India and Bangladesh closer?

With discussion on a treaty on the Teesta river unlikely to bear fruit during the visit of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to India, negotiators hope for treaties on smaller rivers
<p>Sunset on the Teesta river</p>

Sunset on the Teesta river

Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla, Feni, Dudhkumar – the names are unfamiliar to most who do not live along the banks of these rivers. But these transboundary rivers will be in focus when the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh visits New Delhi on October 3-6.

India and Bangladesh share 54 rivers, but there is a limited water sharing treaty only on one – the Ganga. For years, Bangladesh has been seeking a treaty to share the waters of the Teesta, which flows through the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal before reaching Bangladesh and joining the Brahmaputra. While the Indian Central government has been open to the idea, the various governments of the state of West Bengal have not been willing.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is in power in the Centre is mounting a strong challenge to the Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal. Assembly polls are due in early 2021. At this stage, the BJP does not want to attract opposition from voters in what may be seen as giving water to Bangladesh at the expense of West Bengal.

So, the Teesta Treaty is in the backburner, despite the Bangladeshi prime minister expressing the hope that all outstanding issues including the Teesta Treaty would be resolved even before she reached New Delhi. “We are optimistic that the unresolved issues between the two countries will be sorted out soon. We hope we will get positive results over the aforesaid issues before my visit to India,” she told Parliament on September 11.

But members of the technical committee working on the water-sharing discussion for the Prime Minister’s visit are not so optimistic. Seeking anonymity, a member of the technical team told thethirdpole.net that water sharing in transboundary rivers would be a priority item on the meeting agenda, but there would be no special focus on the Teesta.

The Teesta issue would be discussed along with seven other transboundary rivers – Manu, Muhuri, Khowai, Gumti, Dharla, Feni and Dudhkumar – the team member said.

There are other thorny items on the agenda when Sheikh Hasina meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other Indian leaders on October 5-6 – the National Register of Citizens exercise that has recently taken place in the Indian state of Assam, which borders Bangladesh; Rohingya refugees and the differing stands taken on them by the two governments; and arms deals. Before the meetings, the Bangladesh premier will attend the two-day India Economic Forum.

But the impasse on shared rivers is the oldest, having started in 1972, just months after Bangladesh broke away from Pakistan. The Bangladesh-India Joint Rivers Commission was formed at that time.

On Teesta, the two countries did reach an agreement in 1983 to share water during the lean pre-monsoon days. It was a two-year agreement, under which Bangladesh would get 36% of the water during the lean season, India would get 39%, and 25% would remain unallocated. The agreement was extended for another two years till the end of 1987, but no further.

In 2011, a permanent treaty on sharing Teesta water was readied and was supposed to be signed while the then Indian Premier Manmohan Singh was visiting Dhaka. But the signing ceremony was cancelled at the last moment, because Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, raised an objection and pulled out of the Dhaka trip.

Read: Teesta has one-sixteenth of water needed

Based on his 18 years’ experience as a member of the Joint Rivers Commission, eminent water expert Ainun Nishat said, “The chances of getting a concrete decision on Teesta water sharing is very little this time due to the scheduled West Bengal legislative assembly election.”

Beyond Teesta

Perhaps as an acknowledgement of this reality, when secretary in India’s water resources ministry visited Dhaka on August 8 this year, he and his counterpart decided to prepare a framework water sharing agreement on seven of the other Bangladesh-India transboundary rivers.

They also agreed to conduct a joint study on the Ganga Barrage project, which Bangladesh had planned a few years ago with the promise of a loan from India. In 2017, Sheikh Hasina had halted the project, saying the design was faulty and the location was wrong. But the idea has been revived recently.

India Foreign Minister S Jaishankar gave the same signal when he visited Dhaka on August 20. “Water resources is an important subject and we look forward to making progress to find mutually acceptable formulas to share water from 54 shared rivers,” he said to the media.

Read: Waterways can boost India-Bangladesh ties

Shahab Enam Khan, professor of International Relations at Dhaka’s Jahangirnagar University, said transboundary water sharing should be seen as an apolitical issue which deserves to be resolved without further delay. Ultimately there should be agreements on all 54 rivers, he added, not only about water sharing, but also to address pollution.

Dependence on Teesta

The Teesta issue may not be discussed in detail during this visit, but it will not go away, because farmers in both countries are very dependent on the river for irrigation.

With the water reaching Bangladesh in the lean months of February-May one-fifth of what it used to be till the 1980s, paddy growers in the north-western part of the country are now forced to pump groundwater, which is affecting the water table.

Bangladesh has been pointing out that before the construction of a barrage on the Teesta in Gajoldoba in 1985 in West Bengal just upstream of the border, the average water flow there was 5,149 cubic metres per second (cusec). In March 2018, this went down to 312 cusecs, according to the Bangladesh Water Development Board. The West Bengal government says the water is held by hydroelectricity projects in Sikkim, and the blame game continues.

With inputs from Joydeep Gupta